Sunday, January 31, 2010

Not "why poetry?" but "why language?" Dinner with Ikeolu (Clinton) Terrell

My graduate poetry workshop started from the question: "why write poetry?" We ended up talking a lot--too much--about Avatar, the billion dollar movie, and why poets might still choose to seek out an audience of hundreds. (Hundreds of people, not dollars!) Not a new conversation, and one best left behind. Williams's Spring and All has us thinking about destruction and rebirth, prose and poetry, clean words and words that have acquired layers of ambiguity. I've always loved Williams's line about Marianne Moore, that her words were "clean" because she'd scrubbed them down. Stein's claim that she gave the rose back to itself after centuries of symbolic abuse resonates. Later on, we may organize a boxing match between WCW (the no-simile guy) and George Lakoff (the metaphors we live by guy), by way of activating our arguments about language use. Or a free for all with Don Share, who collects similes as if they were verbal hot rods.

But then Ikeolu (Clinton) Terrell came to dinner and called our bluff, my bluff, Lakoff's bluff, Williams's bluff, even Stein and Moore's bluff. He came close to calling the bluff on bluffing itself. Clinton, who is Executive Director of Breakthroughs for Youth at Risk in Hawai`i, declared language itself to be the problem. (Fast backward to my first class, where the question is not, "why write poetry?" but "why speak or write at all?"). In an odd way, he was echoing Williams's call to live and write inside the NOW, though Clinton believes in non-verbal communication. It might have Laura (Riding) Jackson in our living room, declaring an end to poetry because it is inevitably involved in bad faith issues, like professionalism, like competition, like decoration.

"What is this?" Clinton asked of the book I passed him, containing a poem about the Dogon (On Spec, by Tyrone Williams). "It's poetry," was my response. A phrase that validates everything for me did nothing for Clinton. As someone who works with parents and children who are unable to communicate effectively, he concentrates on developing their non-verbal communication. Just as our ability to see prevents us from using other senses, Clinton thinks that our ability to talk interferes with other, more profound, means of communication. (He blind-folds kids and their parents so that they expand their abilities to perceive the world.) Without speaking, he got up and felt my husband's energy field, which extended at least a foot into the living room.

As I argued for the power of language, my examples accrued in support of his assertion (hate it when that happens!) that language cannot always be confused with communication. For example:

--When we adopted our daughter, Radhika, she was three years old. She talked, talked a lot, but in Nepali, which we do not speak. After 9 days together in Kathmandu, we headed to Hawai`i, a trip spanning days, to Bangkok, Japan (six hours in an airport) and then Honolulu. While it would have been nice to communicate in words, what I discovered is that language between daughter and mother is less important that I might have imagined. When Radhika began to speak English, her uses of single words communicated more than I might have thought, too. On the H1 freeway at rush hour, she sat in the backseat and yelled "TRAFFICS!"

--For a couple of months after coming to Hawai`i, Radhika had frequent crying jags in the evening, loud and dramatic ones as befit a girl who had just come so far with us. We had an old cat, Jon Stewart, who had come to us from a hard life in the parking lot, who would climb up on her and put out his paw to reassure her. Forget that she was scared of him, and screamed more loudly--the cat understood, the cat expressed himself.

--My mother is almost without language now. She--and the other residents of her home who lack words, or speak them randomly (to our ears)--are still human beings. They are still expressive, convey shock, surprise, happiness, sadness. That the triggers are invisible to us does not mean that they are not there. My mother is not exactly who she was with language (though when she said on the phone yesterday that she was "flopping about," some of her linguistic personality re-emerged), but an essence (what is that?) remains. My mother's silences, even when they seem the place where she would be speaking had she the words to do so, are still expressive. Sometimes I find myself filling them in; sometimes they stand in for themselves as telling silences, in all senses of the word "telling."

My desire to write about my mother grows in proportion to her loss of language, as if I were her proxy. When Radhika and Sangha created their own language one summer in Madrid, composed to what sounded like Hawaiian and Spanish and English words all mixed together, I wrote them down diligently. What I fear I cannot remember is what I write down. Though "what I fear I will not remember" is not so many things, and it's worth thinking about what these things are, even when they flicker into mind with seeming randomness. So perhaps that is the function of language, or writing, for me, a palpable energy field that attempts to maintain communication where it is being lost, or diverted. When I am with my mother, I too am usually silent. When I leave her, I go directly to my computer to write.

I don't usually confess to my students that where I once most adored poetry that bobbed and weaved, obliqued its subject, obscured its content, my loves these days are those writers who make strong claims on me and then permit me access to acting on them. This does not mean that they use transparent language--they are not Ted Koosers--but it does mean that they lay something out, demand that I see it. (It does not even mean that my favorite poets are always poets.) I can read wonderful poetry and be bored by it (like Chris Vitiello reading his own work), while the imperfect (paradise) of a poem that makes something happen (Sarith Peou's Corpse Watching, for example) makes something happen in me. No, I want to say to Ikeolu, or to Laura Riding, or to Plato, sitting in the shadows of my living room, words do matter. They matter in the body (the corps), not simply in the conversational ether. My bodily reaction is the form the poetry takes, a form more crucial than that residing within the poem itself. Poetic form is not an engine to drive the poem; the poem is the engine to drive the form of the reader's reaction. Or, closer to the home that is my body, the writing acts on me, as I live through it.

And so, when Clinton told us that Ikeolu, the name he has chosen, is both an African name and a Hawaiian one, and when I chimed in that Kamau Brathwaite was pleased to hear that his African name was also Hawaiian, I wondered if those words were not participating in the larger energy field that links us together in ways well beyond the word, but given life by it? The word is "communicable," a contagion that either destroys or strengthens the body it inhabits.


Alfred Corn said...

Your engagement with these issues, Susan, is exemplary--passionate and not pat, reconsidered, not inscribed in stone. An instructive pleasure to read this.


a.k.a. "Joe" said...

is the issue language, or is the issue *writing*?

susan said...

Good question, Joe. For Clinton, I gather the issue is "language," pure and simple. He's looking for non-linguistic ways to get people in difficult situations to communicate with one another. For me, the blogger, the issue tips over into writing.

Carmenisacat said...

What a seriously delightful piece.


My nephew in the back seat was looking up at the mountain as we drove into town and said, "That's so amusing."

I thought so, yes...yes it is.

Thanks for the insights and what a wonderful person to blindfold people in order to get them to 'feel better' and that's the truth.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Language is not all communication by any means. I tend to define "Poetry" very broadly - art made of language. A definition better for deflecting definition than precision.

The English Language is a form. Anyone writing in English is writing in a form, a form more stringent than "sonnet" or "iambic pentameter."